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What Kandinsky Thought
We tend to judge artists by what they do rather than what they think. And while in some cases, there may be some good in this, by and large, most artists do think and do expound, often at some length, on their thoughts quite apart from their work. Recently I was reading part of an old essay by Wassily Kandinsky. For the most part we know this Russian painter through his work, some of the earliest abstractions on record, and his association with the German group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) who took their name from one of Kandinsky's paintings. But, as some might say, the man had a head on his shoulders. And what he has to say might surprise you.

For example, he doesn't think much of revivals. Not the religious sort. There's no indication what he thought of them. I'm talking about artistic revivals--Neo-Gothic, Neo-classicism, Pre-Raphaeliteism, Neo-Impressionism, etc. He counts only that art produced which reflects current times as having any "soul." His reasoning is, we don't live in times past and as a result, we can't feel what artists then felt. Thus, while we may attempt to contrive some semblance of their art, Kandinsky calls it "stillborn." At best we come up with what is a similarity of form. It will lack spirit.

He doesn't contend that artists from the past can't project spirit through their work, or that this spirit cannot be felt by those viewing it today; only that it can't be effectively translated by a present-day artist into a new work. Kandinsky points out that when an artist tries to invoke a style from the past, the only result is materialism. Not that it's not still art, but that it becomes "art for art's sake"--decoration rather than creative communication. I think he's talking first and foremost about his own type of art, abstraction, or near-abstraction, but the principle carries over into other styles and periods as well. The question thus arises, when do "influences" become imitation? He doesn't answer that question but one might guess he would say "quite early on." But maybe there is no definitive answer. Can an artist "borrow" a style from the past and still deliver a living, breathing, "baby" of his/her own? Kandinsky obviously doesn't think so. In fact, he raises the question as to whether we, as artists, should dare to study art of the past if, in doing so, we risk creating a weak, inbred, sickly, art-child of limited intellectual capacity and little or no spirit.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 June 2000

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